In the Castle of My Skin

by George Lamming

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690

British Colonization
British explorers, led by a Captain Gordon, first landed on Barbados in 1620, but it was not until seven years later that the British established a colonial presence on the island. Realizing that on the Atlantic, or east, coast of the island there were no safe natural harbors or landing places, the British explorers and colonizers set up settlements on the "leeward" (Caribbean or west coast) shore of the island. Bridgetown, the eventual capital of the island and the city in which, in Lamming's novel, the riots take place, was an early settlement. But the island's population has always lived largely in the rural areas, as befits an island with an almost entirely agricultural economy.

The "father" of Barbadian settlement by the English was Captain John Powell, who stopped on the island in 1625 in a journey homeward from Brazil. Financed by himself and four other merchants, a party of eighty settlers arrived on Barbados on February 17,1627. These settlers were looking not to spread Christianity or to find a "New Jerusalem" but solely to enrich themselves. Clearing land for plantations, they planted tobacco and imported slaves—eight months after the colony was founded, one of the settlers wrote home that of 100 inhabitants forty were slaves. Soon indentured servants outnumbered slaves; by 1638, out of a total population of 6000, there were 200 slaves and 2,000 indentured servants.

This quickly changed, however, when the planters began growing sugar instead of tobacco, in response to low prices and growing duties on tobacco. Sugar needed a larger initial capital investment, brought greater profits, required more labor, and encouraged consolidation of small estates into large plantations. With less available land to give out at the end of an indenture and longer, harder work the norm, slave labor became preferable to servant labor. Slaves were imported by the thousands—by 1652, the population of the island was estimated at 18,000 whites (freemen and indentured servants) and 20,000 Africans. The "peculiar institution" of slavery established the complicated and often oppressive relationships between the white and black inhabitants of Barbados. As Lamming's novel demonstrates, the effects of slavery were still being felt 300 years after its institution and more than a century after its abolition.

Labor Unrest
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the industrial revolution had enriched tens of thousands of people, made England the world's greatest economic and military power, and "opened up" much of the world to trade and development. But workers, for the most part, did not live much better than they had in the 1820s, and in fact many of the industrial workers who had flocked to the cities for jobs were demonstrably worse off than they had been in the impoverished countryside. In the United States, England, France, and Germany, organizations that attempted to organize workers had existed for decades, but it was not until laws changed at the turn of the century that unions found themselves with any legal rights. Organizers were often the targets of violence perpetrated by "security forces" in the employ of industrialists, and strikes were brutal, chaotic affairs.

The first few decades of the twentieth century saw the unions make great advances in organizing in numerous industries, and unions began to associate themselves with political causes outside of their immediate purview of labor issues. Because of this, politicians everywhere in the industrial world began painting the unions as meddlers, as Communist agitators, and as potential traitors to the nation. A "Red Scare" in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s provided a serious obstacle to unionization. In this period, unions found fertile ground outside of the industrialized nations. In many South and Central American nations, labor unions began organizing the vast masses of poor people working in factories, railyards, and docks in the cities. As happened everywhere, industrialists fought against unionization, often with violence— and they were met with similar violence. The industrialists were often backed by the governments of their own nation or, if the companies were foreign-owned, by the governments of the nations in which the companies were headquartered. In the Caribbean, American sugar and fruit companies were among the firms that used military and governmental power to thwart unionization.

Literary Style

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In In the Castle of My Skin, George Lamming makes use of many of the developments in narrative that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. The novel has always been a form that has permitted writers to experiment with points of view. Early novels were narrated by know-it-alls, as exchanges of letters, or, as in the case of Lawrence Sterne, by potentially pathological liars. Nineteenth-century novels continued these developments of narrative, but many of the most popular novels of that century relied either on omniscient third-person narrators with an ironic distance from the characters (such as Jane Austen's, Charles Dickens's, or George Eliot's) or first-person narrators who were characters in the story (such as Melville's Ishmael or Dickens's David Copperfield). Later in the century, writers such as the Frenchman Gustave Flaubert or the American Stephen Crane experimented with third-person narrators who, amorally, refused to pass judgments on the behavior of the characters.

Dramatic advances in psychology at the turn of the twentieth century brought writers' attention to the very roots of consciousness. Building on the theories of Freud, writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce developed "stream-of-consciousness" narration, a technique that attempted to transcribe exactly the thoughts in a person's head. Lamming employs this and other techniques in his novel. Initially, the novel resembles an interior monologue, but although the language is not as carefully constructed as one would expect from a writer, the vocabulary is certainly above the level one would expect from a nine-year-old. The sentences remind one of how a nine-year-old would speak, however. Lamming suspends his narration between two poles. The literary scholar Sandra Pouchet Paquet explains this as the desire of the boys to be adults in their command of language; "their vocabulary and style of delivery," she argues

strain toward that of the adult community . . . they struggle for a language that will express and clarify their thoughts and feelings about subjects as varied as language, history, politics and law.

Later in the book Lamming changes techniques numerous times. Leaving G.'s consciousness, the narrator becomes an omniscient third-person narrator, entering the consciousness of G.'s mother or the overseer or even the old man. In some chapters the characters' voices are transcribed as if they were speaking dialogue in a play. After G. goes to high school and returns to the village to talk to Trumper, the voice is much more confident, sophisticated, and worldly—just as a teenager sure of his new maturity would be. In order to achieve his goals of melding the personal and the political, Lamming chose to use all of the narrative tools at his disposal.

As befits a novel set on an island only 166 square miles in area, In the Castle of My Skin is dominated by images of water. The first chapter opens with a hard rain, one that eventually causes devastating floods in the village. The second chapter, as well, depicts G. with water falling on him, this time from a skillet with which his mother bathes him. Throughout the book water is something that brings inconvenience (as with G.'s shower) or severe danger (as when Boy Blue almost drowns at the shore, or at the docks where the riot begins). Rain opens the chapter where the village learns about the riots, and Lamming uses the image of taps being opened to describe the village waking up in Chapter 13, the chapter in which the evictions are narrated.

Symbolically, Lamming equates the inexorable and irresistible motion of waters to what is often metaphorically called "the tide of history." The novel, although set in the life of a young boy turned young man, is really about the profound changes both in the village and in Barbadian society as a whole. The forces of history, of capitalism and colonialism and labor unrest and awakening racial consciousness, lap at the village like the tide, and there is nothing the village can do to stop them. All of the inhabitants of the village, from Creighton to G. to Mr. Foster, are caught up in these tides.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Barbados, a colony so closely linked to Britain that it is called "Little England" by colonial administrators, enjoys economic stability and a form of government that gives it more self-determination than many other British colonies. A growing labor movement (led partially by the Trinidadian Clement Payne, later deported, and Grantley Adams) attempts to organize sugar plantation workers and longshoremen.

1950s: Because of labor unrest, persistent racial divisions, and the weakening of Britain after the Second World War, Barbadians strive for independence. The Crown grants the West Indian colonies the right to federate, which they do in 1958.

Today: Barbados, after having achieved its independence in 1966, maintains ties to England as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1997, a commission is convened to discuss the possibility of cutting all ties with Great Britain.

1930s: In the United States, racial discrimination is common. Many West Indians move to New York where they establish communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem. Once in the United States, they encounter growing ideas of black nationalism and pride, led by important figures such as Black Muslim founder Elijah Muhammad and West Indian Marcus Garvey.

1950s: In the middle of this decade, spurred on by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court decision, African Americans begin to use the law to challenge segregation. In Birmingham, Alabama, Rosa Parks is arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white person and a bus boycott begins—an event generally considered to be the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Today: Legal (de jure) segregation is against the law in all states, but social (de facto) segregation endures all over America. In New York, thousands of people of African descent from the Caribbean community join with huge numbers of Puerto Ricans to form a significant Caribbean minority in the city. Tensions between Caribbean communities and others, including African Americans, continue.

1930s: Motivated by economic depression, a dramatically lowering standard of living worldwide, and scarcity of jobs, labor unions gain ground throughout the United States and in many other nations.

1950s: The labor movement continues to grow, but many unions in the United States are infected by organized crime and corruption. Compounding their difficulties, conservative business-oriented politicians seek to thwart the labor movement, investigating it for "Communist influence."

Today: As the U.S. economy moves from an industrial base to a service base, the labor movement finds itself at a crossroads. Unions in such industries as steel, manufacturing, and transportation remain strong, but new unions spring up to organize such nontraditional constituencies as illegal immigrants, graduate students, and temporary workers.

1930s: Technology among the ordinary people of the Caribbean islands is essentially at a nineteenth-century level. Electricity has yet to reach most communities.

1950s: Access to electricity and telecommunications gradually reach the interior of many of the Caribbean islands.

Today: Telecommunications technology allows anyone with access to a telephone line and a computer to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world. Caribbean culture reaches the Western world: Jamaican music (exemplified by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff) is heard all over the world, and Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipul each win a Nobel Prize for literature.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Charques, R. D., Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in Spectator, March 20, 1953, p. 354.

Cotter, Graham, Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in Canadian Forum, September 1953, p. 141.

Coulthard, G. R., Race and Colour in Caribbean Literature, Oxford University Press, 1962.

Douglas, M. S., Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in Chicago Sunday Tribune, November 22, 1953, p. 20.

Lamming, George, "Labor, Culture, and Identity," in Caribbean Cultural Identities, edited by Glyne Griffith, Bucknell University Press, 2001.

Lamming, George, "The Occasion for Speaking," in The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, edited by Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh, Routledge, 1996.

Moses, Knolly, Interview with George Lamming for Pan-media Features, htm (September 20, 2001).

Pouchet Paquet, Sandra, "George Lamming," in The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, edited by Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh, Routledge, 1996.

Pouchet Paquet, Sandra, The Novels of George Lamming, Heinemann, 1982.

Pritchett, V. S., Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in New Statesman and Nation, April 15, 1953, p. 460.

Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 1953, p. 206.

Webster, H. C., Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in Saturday Review of Literature, December 5, 1953, p. 36.

West, Anthony, Review of In the Castle of My Skin, in New Yorker, December 6, 1953, p. 222.

Further Reading
Cudjoe, Selwyn, Resistance and Caribbean Literature, Ohio University Press, 1980.
Although this critical study does not write specifically about In the Castle of My Skin, it discusses the themes of political and cultural resistance to oppression and racism in a number of Caribbean novels, including Lamming's later works Of Age and Innocence and Water with Berries.

Parry, J. H., and P. M. Sherlock, A Short History of the West Indies, Macmillan, 1968.
Written in the mid-1960s, this book is certainly out of date, but as a brief history of all of the islands of the Caribbean up to approximately 1962, the book is more than sufficient. It is especially good at addressing the changing political relationships between the colonies and their colonial powers.

Taylor, Patrick, The Narrative of Liberation, Cornell University Press, 1989.
Taylor's book examines a number of topics such as Frantz Fanon, voodoo, and the trickster figure to come to an understanding of important strains in Afro-Caribbean life and thought. The final chapter, on Lamming and Derek Walcott, discusses how Afro-Caribbean people have used Western forms of literature to illustrate and comment on the social conditions of the West Indies. Taylor, surprisingly, finds Walcott and Lamming not radical enough in their analyses.


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Buhle, Paul. “C. L. R. James, West Indian: George Lamming Interviewed by Paul Buhle.” In C. L. R. James’s Caribbean, edited by Paget Henry and Paul Buhle. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. An interview with Lamming by the biographer of C. L. R. James, the first important West Indian to publish abroad, and in later life an influence on radical activists and critics of society in Britain and the United States, as well as on younger Caribbean writers, including Lamming. The interview concerns the subject of James’s influence on Lamming.

Dance, Daryl Cumber. Conversations with Contemporary West Indian Writers. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree Press, 1993. A collection of interviews with West Indian writers, including Lamming. Other subjects include the Caribbean literary and political patriarch C. L. R. James, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, and the prominent female novelist Jamaica Kincaid.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. A collection of autobiographical, interrelated essays on the perspective and concerns of the postcolonial writer, specifically in the West Indian context. Lamming discusses his own fiction and poetry as well as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and C. L. R. James’s classic history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). The Ann Arbor Paper backs edition includes a helpful, lucid foreword by Lamming scholar Sandra Pouchet Paquet of the University of Pennsylvania.

Munro, Ian H. “George Lamming.” In Fifty Caribbean Writers, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. A biographical and critical essay on Lamming and his work, with helpful citations of critical studies of In the Castle of My Skin and Lamming’s other books.

Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. Foreword to In the Castle of My Skin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. An excellent discussion of the novel, most fruitfully read after having read the novel.

Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. The Novels of George Lamming. London: Heinemann, 1982. The first book-length study of Lamming’s work.

Wright, Richard. Introduction to In the Castle of My Skin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954. An enthusiastic introduction to the novel’s first edition, by one of the most prominent African American novelists.

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